Our Hiking Time: 4h 15m
Total Ascent: 700ft
Highest Point: 2800ft
Total Distance: 6.3 miles
Location: N 47° 42.6840, W 121° 42.6840
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
Some days are meant for snowshoeing: cold and crisp, with just enough sun to give the snow an extra sparkle. Finding ourselves facing a perfect day for strapping on our snowshoes, we packed up to explore a section of reclaimed railroad grade known as the Iron Goat Trail.
In 1893, the former Great Northern Railway finally connected Seattle to Chicago and the Midwest. Constructing a route over Stevens Pass was no easy feat, requiring a series of switchbacks and tunnels to navigate the steep grade. After the route was complete, the railroad still needed to contend with heavy annual snows that often delayed trains for days. Over time, even more tunnels and snowsheds were built to lessen the impact of the snow, yet winters continued to plague the railway. On March 1, 1910, a massive avalanche tumbled down Windy Mountain toward Wellington Station and two snowbound trains full of passengers waiting for plows to clear snow from the tracks. The snow swept the trains down into the Tye Creek basin, killing nearly a hundred people – one of the worst railroad accidents in the US. The railroad reacted to the disaster by building more snowsheds for a few years before eventually admitting defeat and blasting miles of tunnel under Stevens Pass, bypassing and abandoning the higher route.
Officially completed in 2007, the Iron Goat Trail follows portions of that abandoned route, allowing hikers to peek into tunnels, visit former townsites, and explore some of the history of the area. We took a central approach, beginning at the Scenic Trailhead and the Iron Goat Interpretive Site. Almost immediately, you have the choice of following the grade out toward the workcamp site known as Cornea or taking the Windy Point Cutoff to the upper grade. The Cutoff trail is only about a mile, but be warned that the trail is very new, very steep, and difficult to navigate with snowshoes. If you’re snowshoeing, we recommend you skip the cutoff and dive into the trail.
Although the roar of Highway 2 never fully recedes, the forest is welcoming and pleasant. Volunteers have put an incredible amount of effort into adding signs and information to explain the remaining vestiges of the railroad. You’ll quickly encounter impressive concrete retaining walls built to anchor snowsheds to the mountainside and replicas of mileposts marking your distance from St. Paul, Minnesota. Crumbling tunnels yawn invitingly along the route, necessitating more than a few side trips to peer cautiously into the darkness.
With nine miles of trail and three different trailheads, the Iron Goat Trail has more than enough to explore. The trail between Martin Creek Trailhead and Scenic Trailhead is ADA accessible and stroller friendly in the summer months, and is an easy snowshoe in the winter. If you want a little extra, take a cutoff trail up to the Embro workcamp or out to Windy Point. The trail doesn’t have the remoteness and hushed silence that some of us associate with snowshoeing, but it is perfect for a last minute destination or a first-time snowshoe.
To get there, take US 2 out just past milepost 58 and look for the Iron Goat Interpretative Site on the left. -Nathan
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